Donkeys and mules are smarter than horses, so one of the most important aspects of training donkeys and mules is communication. These animals are able to build large understood vocabularies and read human body language with great skill and precision when treated like the intelligent animals they are and given the respect they deserve.
Consider the words of Monty Roberts, renowned horse trainer and founder of The Join up Method of equine training.
“The least intelligent horse is the most intelligent cow. The most intelligent horse is the least intelligent mule.” ~ Monty Roberts
Mules get their intelligence from the donkey side of their family, so whether you are dealing with a donkey or mule, you can expect it to be a smart and challenging animal.
You can also expected it to want to please you and to want to succeed and do well, and you must understand that your donkey or mule’s success in achieving these goals depends a great deal upon you.
What You'll Learn Today
- 1 How Are Donkeys And Mules Different Than Horses?
- 2 Are Donkeys And Mules Stubborn?
- 3 Partner With Your Donkey Or Mule
- 4 Donkeys And Mules Are Creatures Of Habit
- 5 Build Trust With Quality Time
- 6 Quality Time Helps You Develop Fundamental Skills
- 7 How To Train A Donkey / Mule
- 8 How Do You Read A Donkey Or Mule?
- 9 What’s The Best Way To Succeed With A Mule Or Donkey?
- 10 Frequently Asked Questions
- 11 Is It Worth It?
How Are Donkeys And Mules Different Than Horses?
In addition to being more intelligent than horses, donkeys and mules tend to have a stronger work ethic.
Donkeys are patient, stoic and hard-working creatures, and they pass these qualities on to their mule offspring.
Donkeys and mules are also very loyal and tend to bond strongly with their special people. This makes the necessity to build good communication that much more important. Good communication is the foundation of bonding and of good training.
In terms of physical differences, donkeys and mules are quite a bit stronger than horses and have much greater stamina.
This, and their tendency to be cautious, surefooted and careful make them ideal mounts for trail riding and mountain climbing.
Are Donkeys And Mules Stubborn?
The common belief that donkeys and mules are stubborn is a myth. It’s their intelligence and caution that may make them seem stubborn, but the fact is they simply will not jump into a situation that may be dangerous without first thoroughly evaluating all conditions.
This is why you can never force a donkey or mule to do something new. They must have the time to look the situation over and determine just how safe it is or is not before embarking.
The longer you know your donkey or mule, and the better your communication becomes, the shorter this period of evaluation will be. Eventually, your donkey or mule may learn to trust you to make these decisions.
A donkey or mule may also balk when presented with an incomprehensible task. When you’re trying to teach a donkey or mule a new skill, the burden lies on you to make the sense of the skill very clear.
These animals have very little patience for foolishness and nonsense. For this reason, it’s important to break down training into a number of small steps and use your voice and your body language and all the communication skills you have developed to make the concept and purpose of the task clear to your animal.
Partner With Your Donkey Or Mule
While you may be able to force or drive a horse to do something it doesn’t want to do, this is impossible with a donkey or a mule.
This is partly because of their need to evaluate situations before moving forward, but it’s also because donkeys and mules are not typically driven by fear.
If a donkey or mule is startled or frightened by something it may shy or bolt a short distance away, but it won’t run off the way horse will.
Instead, donkeys and mules tend to get out of harm’s way and then stand and look and evaluate the situation.
This inability to be driven by fear is what makes it impossible to drive a donkey to do something it doesn’t want to do.
Instead you have to partner up or join up with the animal and work together to achieve a common goal.
Donkeys And Mules Are Creatures Of Habit
Of course, horses and people are also creatures of habit, but donkeys are much more so. If you have a particular task that you do with your donkey or mule every day, and then you want to change your routine, you may run into some resistance.
When this happens, you’ll need to retrain and work your way through the new routine several times until your animal accepts that it’s time to change.
To do this, you’ll need to start at the beginning, break the task down into parts and demonstrate the end result so that your donkey or mule will understand what the new goal is and what steps must be taken to achieve it.
You’ll find that donkeys and mules are only uncooperative in very specific circumstances:
- When they don’t understand what is wanted
- When you are demanding something they simply have not been trained to do
- If you have done something to cause them to lose trust in you.
Build Trust With Quality Time
Being in relationship with a donkey or mule is something like being in a relationship with a person. You can’t just use them and put them away.
Instead, you need to spend some time together grooming, walking, talking and doing other pleasant and enjoyable things.
These are trust building exercises, and they are valid and valuable training. Remember that anytime you spend time with your equine, you are training him or her.
Conversely, you are receiving training in how to read and understand your partner.
Here is an example of what happens if you try to simply train without doing any genuine bonding or spending quality time.
The presenter in this video has a nice, quiet demeanor around donkeys, but he takes far too many chances being too close to hind legs of animals who are afraid.
Gentling – Training Wild Burros
He is trying to hurry toward scheduled goals, and that’s a mistake. Donkeys can hurt you (and themselves) by kicking through metal fence panels.
When a wild animal is cornered, it will do anything to escape, as the donkey in one scene did when it jumped over the metal panel. It could easily have broken that back leg that was briefly hung up between two rungs.
The kind of very slow, bonding exercises and quality time spent together that are shown in this video are far more effective with donkeys and mules.
Once bonded, they are eager to cooperate with their person.
Notice that, even after a lot of bonding work, the woman in this video stays near the mule’s head and shoulders.
This is a safer way of working early on. You have plenty of time to bond and get your donkey or mule entirely handleable. Take quality time. It’s important.
Quality Time Helps You Develop Fundamental Skills
The better you understand and can read your donkey or mule, the more finely honed your training and communication skills will become. You will develop:
1. Safety Skills
The more time you spend with your donkey or mule, the easier it will become for you to know when the animal is apprehensive, nervous, anxious or simply pissed off.
This is important to know because it can help you avoid a well placed kick.
2. Patience Is A Virtue
Donkeys and mules mature rather slowly, so practical training won’t move along at the clip that you may have come to expect with horses.
When you spend quality time with your animal, you can come to appreciate the smaller and more subtle developments in your partner’s intelligence and knowledge.
3. Respect For Independence
Donkeys and mules are independent thinkers. When you spend time with them, both in training and in down time, you’ll learn more and more about how they think, and you’ll learn to respect their way of thinking. This is invaluable in planning and carrying out training successfully.
4. Flexibility & Perseverance
Getting to know and training a donkey or mule is the ultimate exercise in learning how to develop workarounds!
The challenges and successes involved in training a donkey or mule can be extremely enjoyable and satisfying. Because they are so smart, you need to stay on your toes to keep from being outsmarted.
Additionally, as you come up with new ways to challenge your critter, you’ll also be challenging yourself (and your steed will challenge you right back!)
How To Train A Donkey / Mule
Whether you’re starting with a newborn foal or a newly adopted or rescued adult, the best time to start is now.
Remember that all contact and all interaction is training, so begin spending time with your new arrival as quickly as possible.
Work slowly and quietly to get your equine used to being handled, brushed, haltered and led, and having all of his or her hooves picked up and cleaned.
Naturally this will go a lot quicker and easier with a brand-new baby than it will with an unhandled adult.
Stay patient and give every task as much time is it needs for success. Remember that donkeys and mules are very long-lived. In fact, a well cared for and will can live to be over 40, so you have plenty of time!
TIP: If you are planning to breed for a mule, be sure to pick a mare who has a quiet, intelligent, agreeable personality. The mother is the parent who imparts temperament, so you don’t want a mean-spirited mom!
How Do You Read A Donkey Or Mule?
Just as with your human friends, you’ll gradually learn to pick up on subtle physical cues that other people won’t even notice. Naturally, there are also universal cues you should watch for right from the start, such as:
1. Ear Position
Just as with horses, you can tell a lot about what your mule is thinking by watching his ears. If he’s angry they’ll be laid back. If he’s alert and watchful, they’ll be straight up and attentive.
One ear forward and one ear back when you’re riding means your mule is listening to you and listening for what’s ahead. Very relaxed donkeys and mules may allow their ears to flop to the sides.
2. Mind The tail
A swishing tail or screw tail is a sign of irritation. If you see this, give the hindquarters a clear berth. Your good friend may not kick you, but he might not think anything of giving a solid slap with his tail.
This is the behavior that causes many people to believe that donkeys and mules are stubborn, but they aren’t really balking out of unwillingness to cooperate. This is really “freezing” as a sign of caution.
A donkey or mule may come to a dead standstill if frightened. This gives them a chance to evaluate the situation, and it’s greatly preferable to running wildly away (especially you happen to be riding along a narrow Grand Canyon trail).
What’s The Best Way To Succeed With A Mule Or Donkey?
To have a successful relationship with your mule or donkey and achieve all your training goals, you must:
- Provide a safe, clean and comfortable environment.
- Provide your donkey or mule with regular veterinary and farrier care.
- Feed a good quality of mixed hay and grass on a free feed basis.
- Consult with your vet about what kind of feed your donkey or mule needs.
- Always use positive reinforcement in all your training efforts.
- Develop a consistent, calm, positive way of communicating with your animal.
- Stay in shape yourself, and keep your own skills honed so that you can do your best when working with your donkey or mule.
- Be patient and persistent, and know when to call on a professional for help.
- Follow your instincts. If you know your mule or donkey well, you will be able to adjust training methods and customize them in a way that perfectly suits.
- Make a commitment. A successful relationship with a donkey or mule is based in trust and bonding.
Frequently Asked Questions
An intact male donkey is called a jack. A gelded male donkey is called a donkey gelding. An intact male mule may be called a jack mule or a mule stallion. A gelded mule may be called a john mule or a mule gelding. A female donkey is called a jenny. A female mule may be called a mare mule or a molly mule. Interestingly, many old-timers (mule men in the early 20th century and before) called mules “son” or “daughter”.
Mules are a hybrid cross, so they are generally infertile. There are a very few rare cases of fertile molly mules reproducing, and infertile molly mules can be used as surrogates for equine embryo transfer. They are able to successfully carry the pregnancy to term, give birth and then nurse and raise the foal.
Mule sterility does not affect their behavior. A mule stallion can be just as unruly as a horse stallion. Gelding makes them easier to train and safer to handle.
Donkeys are longer lived than mules. A well-cared for donkey may live up to fifty years. A well cared for mule can live to be around forty years old.
All donkeys bray loudly. Some mules also bray, but most mules combine a donkey bray with a horse whiney. They may either start out braying and end with a whinny or start out whinnying and end with a bray or sometimes just a sigh.
Is It Worth It?
Donkeys and mules are complex and intelligent animals. If you want a mount which simply does what you want and doesn’t challenge you, you may be better off with a horse.
An intelligent, long-lived donkey or mule will keep you engaged and bring you enjoyable challenges for a very long time indeed. Developing and maintaining your relationship is a lifelong pursuit.